MASKS – manners, manipulation and maths

16 July 2020. Updated 17 July 2020.

By Laura Dodsworth

According to Michael Gove, wearing masks is good manners. Nicola Sturgeon says they are a sign of ‘solidarity’.  Matt Hancock has admitted they are to ‘give people more confidence to shop safely’. The emotionally manipulative and coercive language around masks focuses on what they represent – showing you care. Who wants to be impolite? Who wants to be derided for not caring?  While very few people are wearing masks on the high street, online mask shaming is in your face. Covidiot. Selfish. Get over it. Mask up. Granny killer.

Just been to the supermarket and I’m amazed at how many older folk are not wearing masks! I’d be pushing my trolly round Aldi in a hazmat suit. Mental.” That’s more self-congratulatory than mask shaming, but it got me thinking. I’m stocking up at the shops on things I like to buy in person before I switch to online shopping on the 24th July. I don’t enjoy shopping anyway, but add in a queue on the pavement, hand sanitiser in the doorway, stewards checking we don’t get too close to each other, and then a mask inside, and the retail experience has been finished off for me. I also went to Aldi, stocking up on washing power, and thought about how few people were wearing a mask – almost as though they don’t know that the intersection of the Aisle of Wonder and the cheap booze is a dangerous vector of infection.

1 in 3,900 people have Covid19 now. So, how dangerous is Aldi? I estimated there were 50 people in the store, which is probably their New Abnormal limit. In which case, you would have to go shopping 78 times to encounter one person who has Covid. Let’s say one shopping trip takes you an hour. You would need to go shopping in Aldi from 8am on Monday morning till lunchtime on Saturday to encounter just one person with Covid. But this doesn’t take asymptomatic people into account, and 80% of people are asymptomatic. If the 20% of people with symptoms stay at home as they should, then you would actually need to come across 4,680 people, that’s 94 shopping trips, a whole week of constant browsing in Aldi, to meet one person with Covid. When you pass that person in an aisle, what’s the chance of contracting Covid from them? Probably very little. But the theory is that you have be less than 2m away from someone for 15 minutes for there to be a significant risk. Who does that in Aldi? OK, we’ve been socially starved, so let’s be generous and allow one close range chin wag in those 94 shopping trips.  Your risk of catching Covid could be 1 in 4680 which is 0.0002% for an entire week of non-stop shopping at Aldi.

If you contracted Covid, what would your risk of illness and dying be? There is now excellent data on risk factors, but let’s keep this short. The average Infection Fatality Rate is said to be 0.26% by the CDC, which is in line with the ONS data. If 94 hours of shopping haven’t bored you to death, your chance of dying from Covid is 0.00005% without a mask. Zero.

But let’s say you want to wear a mask to reduce the odds, or show you care. How much might masks help? There’s no hard evidence about the impact of masks in the community. Although scientific bodies and the government appeared to be working in a slick lock step to groom us for the new law, their entreaties have lacked evidence. We’re told the science has changed but not told how. The Royal Society came out in favour of masks, but acknowledged that the reason that uptake in the UK had been low was because of an ‘over-reliance on evidence-based medicine’. The BMA made some wild claims in a press release about the effectiveness of masks, which Associated Press fact-checked and found to be false.

So, all those ‘older folk’ might not be ‘mental’. As adults, they assessed the risk vs the benefit. Maybe they did the maths like me.

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